Wednesday November 10, 2010

An Evangelist for Virtual Law Practice

Stephanie Kimbro '03 says the legal profession has a tremendous opportunity to meet the public's desire to receive more legal services online. She launched her virtual law practice in 2006 and has been so successful, she's now often described as an evangelist for virtual law practice.

Stephanie Kimbro '03 says that the legal profession has a tremendous opportunity to meet the public's desire to receive more legal services online. One way to meet this demand is through virtual law practice.

And Kimbro should know. She launched her virtual law practice in Wilmington, N.C., in 2006 and has been so successful, she's now often described as an evangelist for virtual law practice.

"Completely web-based virtual law offices and those that are integrated into a traditional brick and mortar law firm are growing in number," Kimbro said. "In the next five to 10 years, most firms will have some form of delivering legal services to clients online. Trends in outsourcing, globalization of law firms, and the increasing demand from the public for online legal services are driving the growth of virtual law practice."

Kimbro explores elawyering and virtual legal practice in her new book, Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online, which was published by ABA LPM Publishing in October.

The book is a practical, how-to manual for attorneys who want to deliver legal services online through a virtual law office. It addresses virtual law practice that is either completely web-based or in which a firm has integrated a virtual law office into a traditional practice management structure.

"The goal of the book," Kimbro said, "is to guide anyone interested in the concept of virtual law practice through the different management structures, technology options, ethics and malpractice issues, marketing methods and daily management."

Virtual Law Practice includes case studies from attorneys engaged in virtual law practice and elawyering, as well as advice from practice management advisors, IT and security professionals, and marketing and business professionals.

The development in technology, including of software as a service, which Kimbro described as "one form of cloud computing," has made it cost-effective for the solo or small firm to create and implement the technology in ways that were cost-prohibitive before.

The University of Dayton Law Review will publish her article "Practicing without a Law Office Address: How the Bona Fide Office Rule Affects Virtual Law Practice" in its next issue.

Kimbro regularly speaks around the country about her approach to practicing law. In October, she spoke at Harvard Law School during a mini-conference on educating the digital lawyer, sponsored by the Berkman Center's Law Lab.

She  launched her law practice in January 2006, the same month her daughter, Madeleine, was born. At the time, she wanted the flexibility to stay at home with her young child. Kimbro and her husband, Benjamin Norman, a programmer with a background in IT security, developed a virtual law office, Kimbro Legal Services, which focuses on handling unbundled estate planning and small business law.

"The process was similar to hanging a traditional shingle," she said, "only my office is completely web-based so I do not have the overhead costs of a physical law office."

She's also been able to expand her client base across North Carolina, where she is licensed. "With a browser and Internet access I am able to work with clients three or four hours away to deliver legal services," she said.

Since opening her virtual law office, Kimbro said, she has learned that "there is a serious lack of access to legal services for individuals of lower to moderate means. The average family cannot afford to pay the traditional billable hour to receive legal services."

She explained that most of her online clients are from middle-class families who tend to go online to work on their legal case either before work or late at night after putting children to bed. "I was surprised to learn how appreciative clients were to have the option of using technology to work with an attorney while being able to afford the lower legal fees and enjoy the convenience of not having to take time off of work or arrange for childcare to meet with an attorney during regular business hours," Kimbro said.

"Obviously a virtual law office is not a solution for every individual or legal matter," she added, "but elawyering should be considered a useful practice management tool for our profession to facilitate greater access to legal services."

After she opened her virtual law office, she said, other attorneys approached her about setting up similar practices. So in 2007, Kimbro and Norman launched Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC. The company was acquired by Total Attorneys in the fall of 2009.

"We saw a market need for the technology and were able to build a company based on that," she said.

Kimbro uses social media to connect with other legal and business professionals. She regularly provides updates about her work, travels and the legal profession on Twitter and maintains a blog, Virtual Law Practice.

"Twitter has been a great way to start discussions with other attorneys about virtual law practice," she said.

When she started her virtual law office, she also used listservs, online forums, LinkedIn and her blog to build a name for her virtual practice. "But I also used it as a way to locate online mentors, many of whom I have never met in person, but who I continue to learn from regarding practice management and specifics about my practice areas," she said.

In addition to operating her own virtual law office, Kimbro teaches CLEs and guest lectures on virtual law practice, disruptive technology and unbundling legal services for the ABA, state bars and law schools both in-person and through webinars. She is an active member of the ABA's eLawyering Task Force.

She says that law schools could teach a course in unbundling legal services, a practice that, she noted, is "strongly supported by the ABA and most state bars. Most virtual law offices are delivering unbundled or limited scope legal services to clients online," she said. "Information about virtual law practice could be integrated into a course in practice management or a course in professional ethics."

Kimbro will return to UDSL in November when she will be a guest lecturer during assistant professor Sam Han's Dot.com course. "This is a great addition to the law school curriculum and shows that UDSL is forward-thinking in adding it to their curriculum," Kimbro said of the course.

She said Dayton Law is one of only a few law schools offering a course exclusively on setting up a virtual law office.

"I have guest lectured at other law schools where they are adding it into their general practice management courses as another practice management option," she said. "But there is so much material to cover in understanding the ethics, technology and practical marketing and management aspects that it easily fills its own course."

For more information, contact Bob Mihalek, communications specialist at the University of Dayton School of Law, at 937-229-4683 or bob.mihalek@udayton.edu.